Diverse Voices: An Interview with Chris Spivey of Harlem Unbound

We are speaking with Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios. Chris was gracious enough to let us ask him a few questions about Harlem Unbound, Darker Hue Studios, and other projects Chris is working on.

Sean Hillman (SH): Could you tell folks about your earliest role play experiences? Were there games other than Call of Cthulhu that caught your eye or had an influence on you as a designer?

Chris Spivey (CS): My first roleplaying experience was the old Dungeons and Dragons Red Box Set. My friend Jay and I saved up what little money we got for what felt like ages (we were 7ish) and bought it. I think my first ever character was an Elf. My design influences other than Call of Cthulhu? I could say Stormbringer, Nephilim, and a couple of others in the Basic Role Playing family. But stepping away from those, there are a lot of games that have influenced me. Probably, like a lot of folks, I collected RPGs and read about countless worlds. The games that have spoken to me the most and that I ran or played in multiple-year-spanning-campaigns were Shadowrun, Marvel Super Heroes, Vampire: Dark Ages/Masquerade, SLA Industries, Star Wars (a lot of Star Wars. People love when I run it and Edge of the Empire is my favorite iteration. SAGA was nice.), Conspiracy X, and Amber. Each has something amazing to it. Shadowrun and SLA Industries both have an incredibly rich setting. They easily let players and their characters meld into that universe. Vampire's dark storytelling and struggle for humanity resonate with me. Marvel Super Heroes was one of the best systems ever created in its simplicity and elegance. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire captures the magic of success and failure all at once. That and Force Points, a spendable resource, allowing players some control over the narrative in a structured manner is beautiful. Conspiracy X for its sprawling metaplot and lastly Amber for the ultimate player freedom.

SH: What about literary and film influences?

This one is a lot harder and is constantly evolving the more things I delve into and discover. To save your readers a few days of reading, I will narrow it down to my top five influential authors, TV shows, and films. For Films: Bladerunner, Black Panther, The Thin Man, High Noon, and Company (2007 cast). For TV: Black Lightning, Doctor Who, The Wire, Blake’s 7, and Life on Mars. For Authors: Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Neil Gaiman, Tom Stoppard, and Christopher Priest.

SH: When was the moment that you decided to move from just a player and games master to moving to game design? What were the factors that lead you to jump into the industry?

I have wanted to make games since I was 15 and tried to make one. I reverse engineered Stormbringer into a game set in ancient Africa. It was decades before I discovered Imaro. But I did not see anyone like me making games, no one like me playing games at the time, and it kind of fell to the wayside. I played while enduring a lot of racism, navigating to find safe spaces to play, and crafting campaigns for my own group. Then I decided to try to change this industry that I loved. I wanted to make it safe and encouraging for my kid, for other people’s kids, and for people like myself. The only way to do that was to try. I don’t know if I will succeed but hopefully, I can inspire or show at least one other person to not let a false narrative about gaming being only cis white males stop them from creating something and telling their own story. I had the good fortune of some people passing my name on to Avie and then attended Metatopia. Metatopia solidified a lot of things, showed me that other people were trying to change things, and I could help carry that long overdue work too.

SH: Darker Hue Studios is unquestioningly devoted to exposing gamers to diverse voices and ideas in role playing games. What has the response been to your success?

It’s been mixed, but overall positive. It’s reassuring to know that so many people are open to change. We have a long way to go but we can do it together. It’ll make the industry and us better.

SH: Before getting into Harlem Unbound, could you talk about some of the other projects that Darker Hue Studios is working on? I believe I saw recently you are working on a superhero project for Pulp Cthulhu?

: Sure. I have a couple projects in the queue right now. I literally just submitted my final input for Chicago By Night yesterday. I am a few months away from submitting the final draft sometime in November for a modern-day superhero campaign using the Pulp Cthulhu system. Mike and the Chaosium crew did an amazing job creating Pulp Cthulhu and capturing the feel of 1930s pulp heroes. I grew up loving superhero comics and saw instantly how it could be engineered to support superheroes vs. the Mythos. The campaign is gritty, horrific, and should allow you to create street-ish level characters in the vein of the Luke Cage, The Flash, Spectrum, and Ms. Marvel. All of the playtesters have loved the freedom of their powers, the new mechanics, and sanity shattering scenarios.

I am psyched to be creating a neighborhood, Independence, for the City of Mist. Here is the primer from the Kickstarter:

A new City District of African-American legends by Chris Spivey, multi-ENnie-award-winning author of Harlem Unbound! Independence is a district striving for a brighter future while suffering under the oppressive weight of history, corruption, and Ward Nine’s diabolic machinations enforced by their shadowy legions. Can your crew help local legends Isaiah (High John de Conquer), Myrna (John Henry), Reeves (Lone Ranger), and B (Harriet Tubman) overcome Ward Nine’s legions and bring change to this downtrodden district?

I have a couple of project drafts on the old laptop and I'm doing research about my next project that is down the road. I am gearing up to focus on the science fiction line but may have a little time to freelance for the right project.

SH: Harlem Unbound is an award-winning work. Can you talk about how it came to be and the process of getting from idea to Kickstarter project to award-winning role-playing product?

Harlem Unbound has been my passion idea, then project, for a long time and part of it goes back to a couple of things. First my cousin is Zora Neale Hurston so I've always had a close connection to Harlem. And then also the Call of Cthulhu scenario, Dead Man Stomp by Lynn Willis and Mark Morrison. That scenario is what made me fall in love with Call of Cthulhu, the game. I knew Lovecraft from his work and came to the game later. Dead Man Stomp had some problems but was based in Harlem and highlighted it. It was my go-to scenario for introducing people to Call of Cthulhu for decades. (Now, it's either the New York chapter of Mask of Nyralothotep or the Condemned.) When I decide to jump into game development, it had to be Harlem Unbound. I created a sample of the what the book would be. The full pitch was about 15 pages and a scenario. I contacted RPG companies about the pitch, gauge their interest with a brief and then follow up with the full pitch if they showed interest. Every company passed on it. Some people were saying, 'it's not really our brand' or 'it won't sell.' I was also a guy no one knew, I didn't have any connections, and I was directly tackling Lovecraft and racism.

I just made the choice to do it myself. The book was too important, too much of our history was being erased, and I convinced my wife Jill, as this was something that would impact us both. Little did I know how much. I decided to attend Metatopia after an hour-long chat with Avonelle Wing about gaming, my mission, and wanting to create my own RPG. She put me on the list of people attending and that's when things got interesting.

My soon-to-be right-hand man, Brennen Reece, emailed me out of the blue asking if I was the guy that went to Auburn High School. I was like 'yes, random internet stranger that is I.' It turned out we went to the same school and ran in the same circles but never knew each other. We met at Metatopia and bonded over scotches, Harlem, Lovecraft, and music. Brennen understood my vision and joined the cause.

Then I reverse engineered the pitch in the skeleton of the book, created a project plan, researched printing costs, shipping costs, then contacted a few people that I had met, and believed would bring their swagger to the book. I wanted it to have vibe, art, and feel unlike other books. It needed to stand out on the shelf. For the Kickstarter, I owe Mark Diaz Truman a huge thanks for his willingness to review and provide me detailed feedback on my first Kickstarter. That was a life saver.

All of that to say, I owe the successful Kickstarter and awards to the people I've met along the way and the advances in social media that allowed me to engage with the community. The community is not just buying a book or widget, they are investing in your dream and you. It’s not just about the product but it’s about the community you build during the process. I am thankful to all of them for their continued support, banter, and general awesomeness.

SH: Has Harlem Unbound’s success inspired others? Are people seeking you out for advice on their own projects?

Yes. It has inspired others and that is exactly what I had hoped for. A number of teachers have reached out to thank me and let me know they are using it to engage in conversations with their students. They are having honest talks about history, its impact on us, and not ignoring the ugly truths. Harlem Unbound has even been added to a university’s syllabus about powerful horror fiction. I have had a few other creatives reach out to me for advice, input, and help. I am glad to help given the time I have available, and considering the subject matter and sensitivity to the topic. Those three things determine a lot for me. Harlem Unbound has exceeded my expectations.

SH: Now Chaosium is going to be publishing a second edition of Harlem Unbound. How did that come to pass and how is your relationship with Chaosium?

It all came to pass really quickly. Then mentioned it to me briefly before GenCon and we had a meeting about a couple of different things. During the meeting they expressed a strong interest in publishing a second edition and maintaining its integrity. So, I gladly accepted especially given that it's the chance to reach a larger audience with the book. They've entrusted me as the Line Developer for [REDACTED], a new science fiction line and general freelancer, so I'd say our relationship is good.

SH: What changes do you want to make to the second edition? Is anything going to be added?

I am making a number of changes for the second edition. Nearly every section of the book will be revised and/or expanded to some extent. I will be commissioning a few additional scenarios, art, updating the Map of Harlem, and a few new scenarios. And of course, we are doing another pass of copy editing to try and catch any typos and other issues like that. The book will feel different while still having the same soul. I am just excited that the book has a chance to reach more people.

SH: Your relationship with Chaosium is growing further than Cthulhu. Is there anything you can tell us who are fans of BRP and Science Fiction about the upcoming SF project?

LOL! First off, the Call for Creatives is still open and will be until November! This is an idea I have had for a number of years and even did a tiny proof of concept playtest at GenCon one year. All I can say about it is: Keep an eye out for additional information that should be dropping soon. I can say that it's an Afro-Judeo science fiction game that focus on what it means to be human in an age of evolution. Thanks for taking time to chat with me.

SH: Chris, thank you for answering our questions I know a lot of folks will be interested to learn more about you and Darker Hue Studios!

This article was contributed by Sean Hillman (SMHWorlds) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!

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Sean Hillman

Sean Hillman

A few interesting RPG works coming for BRP and CoC not to mention additions to other great lines like City of Mist. Can't wait to see more of Chris's work.

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